Need to Know: November 20, 2018

Fresh useful insights for people advancing quality, innovative and sustainable journalism


You might have heard: In 2017, U.S. sets new record for censoring, withholding government files (AP)

But did you know: The sorry state of FOIA — ‘a wheezing, arthritic artifact of more optimistic times’ (Reason)

When the Freedom of Information Act was passed in 1966, it was a landmark law and an exciting, promising new tool for reporters, researchers and concerned citizens. Since then, the number of submitted FOIA requests has increased steadily year-over-year, reaching a record 800,000 requests in 2017. But it’s more difficult than ever to pry loose documents about the federal government, reports CJ Ciaramella. The Associated Press reported in March that the number of FOIA requests denied or censored by the feds hit a record high in the first year of the Trump administration, nearly doubling to 63,749. There was also a record number of freedom-of-information lawsuits (651) filed against various federal agencies in 2017. Adam Marshall, an attorney at the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, says one explanation for the spike in lawsuits is “increased frustration with how badly the FOIA process at the administrative stage is failing … Information is being withheld that shouldn’t be, but also it’s taking an incredibly long time to even get decisions about FOIA requests, to the point where people feel like they have no choice but to file a lawsuit to just get a response to their request.”

+ Noted: White House backs down from legal fight, restores Jim Acosta’s press pass (CNN); ASNE diversity survey had meager participation but shows progress among those reporting (Poynter); Novelist Junot Díaz remains on Pulitzer Board after review of misconduct allegations (The New York Times); The Boston Globe launches new vertical on cannabis, joining many news outlets now seeking to build audience around legalized marijuana (Nieman Lab); Analysis finds cable news networks spend far more time talking about hurricanes than wildfires (The Washington Post)


Tips for localizing climate change stories (The GroundTruth Project)

For a lot of reporters, telling climate change stories may be something they’re already doing — they just have to make the connection. That means, in many cases, linking hyperlocal stories that have a direct impact on readers or viewers — for example, longer pollen seasons or rebuilding after flood or fire damage — to climate change. It also means reducing scientific jargon, which often crops up in climate change discussions, and reporting in a way that makes the subject more accessible. “When you can, avoid jargon. When you can’t, explain it,” writes Samantha Fields. And how can journalists get around the fact that climate change is still a highly polarizing topic in many parts of the country? Try reporting from a solutions angle, suggests Fields: “…Even in places where a majority of people are not receptive to talking about climate change, they often are receptive to talking about solutions, like renewable energy.”

+ Related: “Wildfires have changed California. They’ve changed journalism, too.” (San Francisco Chronicle); In their own words: Reporters from the Paradise Post and the Chico Enterprise-Record talk about what what it means to rebuild their community, after what will have been the worst fire in California history (Columbia Journalism Review)


Why covering the environment is one of the most dangerous beats in journalism (The Conversation)

According to one estimate, 40 reporters around the world died between 2005 and September 2016 because of their environmental reporting — more than were killed covering the U.S. war in Afghanistan. Environmental reporting is a hazardous beat in many countries because environmental controversies often involve influential business and economic interests, political battles, criminal activities, anti-government insurgents or corruption. Other factors include ambiguous distinctions between “journalist” and “activist” in many countries, as well as struggles over indigenous rights to land and natural resources. In both wealthy and developing countries, journalists covering these issues find themselves in the cross-hairs. Most survive, but many undergo severe trauma, with profound effects on their careers.


How to talk to people, according to NPR’s Terry Gross (The New York Times)

Interviewing a person and having a conversation with them are two different things, but a common thread that can help you to excel at both, according to NPR host Terry Gross, is “being genuinely curious, and wanting to hear what the other person is telling you. I can respond to what somebody is saying by expressing if I’m feeling sympathy or empathy, and explaining why.” Gross also distills the qualities of a good conversationalist to being mentally organized, concise and energetic; while keeping a close eye on other people’s body language. And knowing when to push, and when to ease off. “I want the liberty to ask anything with the understanding that if I’m pushing too far, my guest has the liberty — and they know they have the liberty — to tell me that I’m going too far.”


The media wants Congress to let it gang up on Facebook and Google (BuzzFeed News)

The news industry is readying a lobbying push with a straightforward, but audacious request: Please let us collude against Google and Facebook. The long-shot effort for collective media bargaining rights with tech platforms was raised by an industry trade group as an idea last year, but has since languished in Congress, reports Steven Perlberg. Now, with resentment against Big Tech at an all-time high in Washington and Democrats set to take control of the House, news executives are starting to believe they now have another shot. What they’re fighting for is permission, currently restricted by federal antitrust rules, to team up to negotiate the terms by which their content is distributed by Google and Facebook, among other demands surrounding things like customer data. The stakes are particularly high for small local news outlets that have struggled as Facebook and Google eat up the online advertising market.

+ Related: BuzzFeed CEO Jonah Peretti says his company could eventually merge with other online publishers in order to negotiate better terms with tech platforms like Facebook (BuzzFeed News); Apple CEO Tim Cook calls new regulations “inevitable”: “Generally speaking, I am not a big fan of regulation. I’m a big believer in the free market. But we have to admit when the free market is not working.” (Axios)


Better local journalism, by local reporters, is the goal of a new database (The New York Times)

In recent years, as local news organizations have been decimated by layoffs and industry consolidation, communities across the country have complained that journalists who come into their towns and cities too often produce shallow or misrepresentative reporting. Local journalists who know their hometowns could report the same stories more accurately and with more depth, they say. Sarah Baird, a journalist from Richmond, Ky., is among the critics, and she has an answer. Last week Baird launched Shoeleather, a database aimed at connecting journalists outside the nation’s media hubs — New York City, Washington, Los Angeles and San Francisco — with editors across the country for the purpose of reporting on their home regions. Registering with Shoeleather is free. Journalists sign up using a Google form, noting their location and areas of coverage. Assigning editors can access the database at no cost, sorting reporters by state, city and coverage area and then getting their contact information.